Tracy Mitrano Calls for Compassionate, Fact-Based Policies to End Tragic Epidemic
PENN YAN—Democratic Congressional Nominee Tracy Mitrano (NY-23) discussed her position on the best means to combat the opioid epidemic that has beset the nation in recent years, causing great harm to families and communities across America, including New York’s Southern Tier.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016, 115 Americans died each day from an opioid overdose. Of the 63,600 drug overdose deaths in 2016, about two-thirds involved opioids. The crisis is not abating but continuing to accelerate at a startling pace: provisional data from the CDC indicates that in 2017, 72,000 Americans died from drug overdose. Analysis done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that more than 49,000 of these deaths involved opioids.
This is a national problem, and a local one. In 2017, 22 people in Tompkins County fatally overdosed on opioids, making last year the deadliest for fatal overdoses in the area’s history. Since 2007, opioid-related deaths have increased in the county by a staggering 1000 percent.
“These numbers break my heart,” Mitrano said. “Behind them lies somebody’s child—somebody’s parent, sister, or brother. It is a public policy issue that demands immediate attention from every level of government.”
Mitrano, who is running for Congress in New York’s 23rd Congressional district, supports a multi-front approach to the opioid epidemic. She fervently advocates that all law enforcement and emergency medical personnel carry naloxone and every person affected by addiction have access to detox facilities. Moreover, Congress must maintain legislation that prevents health insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of a pre-existing condition, as well as approve budgets that expand, rather than cut, Medicare funding.
In wake of the crisis, some conservatives have pushed for increased criminal penalties for those who deal or use opioids. In March, President Trump announced that his administration would begin seeking the death penalty, when appropriate under current law, for defendants charged with trafficking opioids. Mitrano’s opponent in the race for NY-23, incumbent Republican Tom Reed, has gone on the record supporting the measure and indeed has long been a proponent of stiffer penalties for drug dealers. He co-sponsored the Help Ensure Lives Are Protected (HELP) Act, which was introduced in 2015 and re-introduced in 2017. The legislation has not yet passed Congress.
Mitrano sees these kinds of responses to the opioid epidemic as cruel, and moreover, ineffective in addressing the real problems that communities are facing.
“I understand the impulse for justice,” she said. “But giving drug traffickers the death penalty won’t save lives. Tom Reed seems to believe we can criminalize ourselves out of a public health emergency by executing drug dealers. In large part, he is scapegoating addicts to divert attention away from some of his most lucrative donors who bear responsibility in this crisis. I’m interested in solutions that address this menacing public health emergency that affects families throughout this district.”
Reed focuses almost exclusively on individual drug dealers, Mitrano says. But the opioid epidemic was, in large part, created by pharmaceutical companies who continued to market and sell their products, despite—as new evidence makes increasingly clear—knowing that the drugs could, and indeed were, being abused. While today, many people are overdosing on illegal opioids, many drug abusers became originally addicted to legally-prescribed painkillers. Reporting done by The New York Times suggests that as many as 80 percent of heroin users began their spiral into addiction with the misuse of prescription opioids. According to data from the CDC, more than 200,000 people in the United States have fatally overdoses on prescription-related opioids since the drugs were put on the market in the 1990s.
In recent years, a spate of court actions has sought to hold pharmaceutical companies as to some extent responsible for these deaths. States and counties throughout the United States have filed hundreds of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, alleging that the companies built a demand for their product despite knowing its addictive and potentially fatal qualities. In August of this year, New York State sued Purdue Pharma, accusing the company of fraud and negligence in its marketing.
Mitrano supports these actions.
“The illegal drug trade has been a scourge on American society for half a century now. The combination of the so-called ‘legal drug trade’ is lethal. It is of the utmost importance that Congress stand behind efforts to end the illegal drug trade through robust law enforcement and the legal one by lawsuits against the big pharmaceutical companies who prioritized profit over people’s lives,” Mitrano said. “The actions undertaken by attorneys general in states across our country are critical in making these companies accountable for the devastation they have wrought. Many of the top officials at these companies knew that these drugs were dangerous. They knew they were highly addictive. They knew they were being abused. It’s only fair that these companies, after being tried in a court of law, are made to pay for rehabilitation and treatment for the people who became addicted to the legal product that they so fraudulently supplied.”
Another controversial aspect of the debate surrounding the opioid crisis in America concerns supervised injection sites, a new innovation in the fight to combat opioid abuse. At the sites, which have already been implemented in many U.S. cities, users are given a space where they can use opioids, under the supervision of health officials who can assist if somethings goes wrong. Information regarding treatment and recovery options is also available.
While many people have expressed concerns that such supervised injection sites will fuel opioid drug use, rather than prevent it, the data suggests that this isn’t the case. A study published in Canadian Family Physician in 2017 found that supervised injection sites actually led to lower overdose mortality, as well as fewer emergency calls for overdoses.
Currently, there are more than 90 supervised injection centers worldwide, though they remain illegal in New York State. Earlier this year, the mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick, wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, asking that the New York State Department of Health approve the placement of a safe injection site in his city, a move he believed would save lives.
Reed has come out strongly against the idea. Mitrano is more cautious.
“I refuse to dismiss outright anything that health professionals believe might help keep people alive, and the data on these centers suggests that they do exactly that,” she said. “However, such a site should only be open lawfully and if a town or city wishes to have one. Even then, detailed study of their efficacy, wide community buy-in as well as the support and oversight of law enforcement and health officials are preconditions.
Overall, Mitrano is committed to finding workable solutions to the enormous problem that opioid addiction presents to communities across New York and the United States.
“Compassion, evidence-based research, and public policy — not fear, misinformation, or politics — should guide our approach to this public health crisis,” Mitrano concluded.